Don’t get me wrong. Recycling isn’t a bad thing. I recycle everything I can – we all should.
But it can create a trap that we fall into, where we think that just because something can be recycled, it’s okay to buy it. We use more plastics, more cardboard, more glass, more aluminum – and feel guilt-free when we toss them all into the recycling bin.
We need to remember that there are THREE Rs, and the other two should always come before recycling whenever possible:
Don’t let recycling lull you into a false sense of complacency so that, instead of first reducing your consumption and then reusing everything you can, you just buy more stuff as long as you can recycle it. First of all, there can be problems with recycling. Contrary to what you might think, not everything that gets put into a recycling bin necessarily gets recycled. And what does get recycled still uses a lot of energy and resources to actually recycle the material.
Recycling isn’t bad, but it should still always be the last resort. No matter what its material or energy efficiency, what you already have is always the most sustainable choice. Instead of recycling more, try thinking about ways in which you can utilize reusable containers and other materials; buy in bulk or larger containers instead of individual items; look for things that come in already-recycled containers; go digital and think more about what you print; and buy things that don’t have packaging or containers. Above all, reduce and reuse first, as much as possible.
For the recyclable items you do buy, here is the preferable order for the most commonly recycled materials:
- Glass – this is the best material to buy and recycle because it is 100% recyclable into new containers, and it is made from a nearly inexhaustible resource: sand.
- Paper and cardboard – much of this can be recycled, although certain coatings and other added materials present a challenge. There are also great alternatives to disposable paper products.
- Aluminum or tin – better than plastic; but tin cans are lined with an epoxy made from BPA, a chemical that has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive system abnormalities, among other things. The biggest culprits are canned soup, vegetables and pastas (canned ravioli, etc).
- Plastic – this should always be the last thing you buy. Plastic is made from petroleum, which we already know is bad for us and bad for the planet. Also, because petroleum loses its quality when broken down for recycling, plastic is almost never recycled into another food container, and much of it is never recycled at all.
I am pretty excited about a very cool new zero-waste grocery store coming to my East Austin neighborhood this fall! It’s called in.gredients, and it’s all about precycling and local, organic goods. Customers will not only bring their own shopping bags, but their own containers to fill with sauces, milk, granola, whatever. I think it’s an awesome revolution in how we consume food products.